MAGUINDANAO, Philippines – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) office in Maguindanao is now facing a giant task as the days move closer to the May 13 elections.
In charge of the Comelec in Maguindanao is someone who doesn't come from this place.
Atty. Udtog Tago is a Maranao and a former National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) volunteer in Lanao del Sur who eventually took a job at the elections body, now assigned in the land that was once regarded as the “cheating capital of the Philippines.”
This province gained infamy after questions were made on the results of the 2007 senatorial elections, which suspiciously favored the candidates vouched by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo under Team Unity.
PNoy's 14 votes in Maguindanao
I remember during 2010, while we were doing news coverage of the campaign trail of the presidential elections, then Senator and now President Benigno Aquino III told us an anecdote on the Senate's investigation into the 2007 election fraud.
“Nu’ng dumating na ‘yung COC (certificate of canvass) ng Maguindanao, sabi ko tingnan ko nga kung gaano karami boto ko. Nagtataka kasi ako at konti lang boto ko du’n, para bang wala man lang nakakilala sa mga magulang ko,” said Aquino, while seated across me, huddled on the other edge of the round table where reporters had dinner and coffee after tailing the sortie in Surigao City.
As he moved his hand to gesture the move of someone about to read a page as wide as a newspaper, Aquino said, “Pinigil pa ko ni Chiz (Senator Chiz Escudero) at huwag na lang daw, baka sumama lang loob ko. Nu’ng makita ko, sabi ko kay Chiz, bakit sasama loob ko, 14 pala boto ko, mas lamang pala ko sa’yo, ikaw 11 lang.” Then all of us laughed.
Months later, Aquino won the presidential elections and in Maguindanao, he got more than the 14 votes he received in the 2007 elections.
Maguindanao elected Aquino to the presidency with 163,377 votes.
|Board of election inspectors and elections volunteers sit on the floor of the provincial capitol as they go over election receipts in the May 11, 2010 elections. Photo by Jay Directo, AFP
It’s not difficult to appreciate the reform that Maguindanao has gone through since the gruesome massacre happened in November 23, 2009.
According to Atty. Tago, the most important reform instituted in Maguindanao is the purge they made with the voters’ list.
Tago said, before last year’s general registration of voters, Maguindanao alone had 567,443 voters.
But during the general registration of voters, the number was reduced by more than 20,000 when only 543,034 registered in the precincts.
Tago said the number was subjected to AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) where around 127,121 were identified as double-registrants and minors. This number was deleted from the records of the list of voters.
Trying to clean the voters’ list was a delicate process, said Tago, especially with minors who tried to register at the prodding and insistence of town officials.
“Just to avoid any commotion during the registration process, so minarkahan lang ‘yung mga minors, and then they got a list of all these minors and then later on submitted this list to the Election and Barangay Affairs Department of the Commission, naisali po sila dun sa tinanggal,” said Tago.
But the bigger problem was the double, sometimes multiple registration.
The Comelec found out that some voters even managed to register 6 times for one person in different registration centers.
Tago showed me copies of multiple registrants revealing one face, but sporting different hairdo, a headdress, different names and different addresses.
But biometrics technology caught up with multiple registrants, thanks to the AFIS.
“Dito sa Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat ang pinakamataas. Around 10,400. Next is the Datu Odin. And then next is Datu Hoffer and Datu Unsay. Pero in terms of percentage doon sa nag-apply, pinakamataas ang Datu Unsay ang na-delete. Ang applicants is more than 14,500, ang na-delete is 5,900 ang natira lang is 4,700 plus,” said Tago.
During the May 2010 national elections and July barangay elections of that same year, I saw people loaded on trucks and brought to voting precincts in Datu Unsay.
I knew then that the number of registered voters was around 14,000, but in some barangays we visited, there were more horses and goats than people roaming the rolling hills and gravel roads.
The sadder part is that real voters are disenfranchised by cheaters.
Recalling his experience in Lanao del Sur, Atty. Tago said the Maguindanao experience is quite similar.
The modus operandi is by means of substitute voters. Tago explained that “substitute voting” is allowed by law for illiterate voters who can’t read nor write.
These voters are accompanied by chaperons who assist the illiterate voter in the process of writing his vote.
Tago explained that these “assistors” are allowed to chaperon a maximum of 3 voters.
“A group of persons are being organized tapos sila ‘yung nakalinya during election, tinatawag ‘yung mga pangalan tapos hindi sa kanila ‘yung pangalan, pumapasok lang sila, parang very peaceful, sila ‘yung bomoboto sa pangalan ng mga tao. Pagdating nu’ng may-ari ng pangalan tingnan dun sa listahan naiboto na siya, so wala na, wala na nakaboto na sya, minsan bibigyan siya ng ibang pangalan na iboboto na rin niya,” said Tago.
But concerns on the conduct of election are not limited within the confines of the precinct.
Guns, goons, gold
Fr. Jun Mercado of the Notre Dame University-Cotabato’s observation points to the continuing existence of the “3G” of politics which has traditionally marked local elections.
The 3G stands for “guns, goons and gold.”
|Philippine soldiers guard the the perimeter of the provincial capitol during the May 11, 2010 elections. Photo by Jay Directo, AFP
Mercado is a Catholic priest, who hails from Bulacan but moved to Cotabato in the 1960’s. A professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and of Islamic Studies, obtained thru a degree in Cairo, Egypt, Mercado has been a staunch advocate of peace in the Mindanao region.
This year, as Governor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu seeks his second term, a distant relative, Mayor Tucao Mastura of Sultan Kudarat town of Maguindanao, will challenge his candidacy.
But, according to Mercado, the contest between the two will be decided most likely by the alliance formed between political families and clans, which became connected with one another through intermarriages.
“Sabihin natin noong panahon ni Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr., isa siya sa mga nag-consolidate ng mga traditional families at naging para bang lord siya. The likes of him nakita lang natin nu’ng 1950s noong panahon ni Datu Udtog Matalam. After Datu Udtog Matalam, eh nawala na ‘yung mga tinatawag nating paramount lord ng buong probinsya, ng buong region. Ito'y naulit na lamang noong panahon ni Datu Andal Ampatuan at ginawa niya ‘yan through intermarriages,” said Mercado.
Mercado said it was the formula used by the old man Andal in taking hold of the province, which was only cracked when Governor Mangudadatu ran and won in the 2010 elections.
“So ang point lang dito is that paramihan lang ‘yan ng mayor eh. Paramihan ng hawak na pamilya. So ilang pamilya ang hawak mo, sabi ko may mga intermarriages na ‘yan ano? At anong possibility ng alliances ng families na ito ang mama-muster mo to make you governor. Plus, malaki ‘yung money, sabi nga nila, you can move alliances, you can forge partnerships, depende ‘yan sa how much,” said Mercado, explaining the role that will be played by money in Maguindanao elections.
Simply put, election money doesn’t land directly in the hands of the people.
Bribes are not placed on the palms of voters who live in the province that is ranked 5th among poorest provinces of the country.
Guns and goons too will move, said Mercado, with the use of the so-called private armies.
“Misnomer na tawagin itong private army ano. Eh talagang mga government militia ito eh. Bakit? Ang kanilang armas, galing sa Armed Forces of the Philippines. Ang kanilang allowances galing sa Republic of the Philippines. Sila ay kontrolado ng mga gobernador. Actually, controlled sila not because na sila'y Datu o sabihin natin clan leader. Na-control nila ‘yan because they are governor, they are mayor. Kasi meron silang CVO,” said Mercado.
The peace advocate said the so-called private armies are actually government personnel in the sense that they are registered, they are armed, they are given allowances by the government, by the Republic of the Philippines.
A clear example, according to Mercado is the arms cache discovered in the Ampatuan properties bearing the markings of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Department of National Defense.
The solution that Mercado proposes to solve the proliferation of arms and militia in Maguindanao can be done with a single stroke of a pen. Mercado said with just the signature of the President, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the militia can be abolished.
“Abolish ninyo ‘yung CAFGU, i-abolish ninyo ‘yung mga auxiliaries. I-abolish ninyo ‘yung mga volunteers. And then suddenly, it will all disappear, for the simple reason that the money spent for all these so-called private armies are from the Republic of the Philippines, including the armament,” said Mercado.